The Comedy Of Violence

Andrew Oullette, contributor  

One rubber mallet, several sticks of TNT, a frying pan and a shotgun. Add a of dash gun powder and mix thoroughly. Let sit for an hour before baking and there you have it: A recipe for funny.

Violence has a long history in comedy. The Three Stooges and the Marx  Brothers are good examples. America’s Funniest Home Videos ran for over a decade based on viewer submissions of violence; it was sadism with a laugh track. Now you can see routine bloodshed on cartoon shows like South Park, Family Guy or SuperJail. The list is almost endless.

The language of humor itself is vicious. George Carlin once remarked in his New York Times bestseller Brain Droppings, “The language of comedy is fairly grim and violent. It’s filled with punchlines, gags, and slapstick. After all, what does a comic worry about? Dying!”
He’s right, comedy usually contains incredibly violent language. Language which fills cartoonish musical acts such as Insane Clown Posse or GWAR; they use language to paint a picture of comical horror. These bands have millions of fans because there is a market for it. It’s fun.

I can hear the protests now, “Society should be ashamed of itself. These are terrible forms of entertainment.” Are they terrible though? Let’s admit right away that non violence, language included, is not as entertaining as its antithesis. Mickey Mouse isn’t funny like Bugs Bunny is funny. Mickey will giggle and go on wholesome adventures with his friends. Bugs will trick Elmer Fudd into shooting himself in the face with an Elephant gun.

Elmer Fudd is the antagonist. He’s the bully. Bugs Bunny is our hero and the violence is just part of Elmer getting his comeuppance. It’s the same reason we wait to see the bad guy get killed in a shootout at the end of a gangster movie. The violence reflects a sense of justice for the protagonist. It fills the lack of real life justice that our own bullies received, especially in comedy where the underdog is king.

Or in some cases, such as Happy Tree Friends, the violence is so extreme you have no choice but to laugh to relieve the tension. Being shocked can be fun in and of itself. Maybe the depiction of brutality feeds our primal selves. Could it sate the inner bloodlust we still carry from when we were hunting dinner and fending off predators? Who’s to say that cartoon bloodshed doesn’t make our inner monkey smile a yellow, rotted grin?

Of course, real human suffering isn’t funny unless you’re a psychopath. In real life, a hunter getting shot in the face is heartbreaking. However, violence is a part of reality, a dark nasty part, so comedy must address it. It’s the job of the humorist to reflect society’s hypocrisies and fears; we act as mirrors. If there were no horror stories, no tragedy to reflect, then violence wouldn’t be funny. Unfortunately there is plenty of horror so comedy works ceaselessly to alleviate it.

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